University officials did not disclose acquisition of grenade launchers

Christopher Aadland

The University of Minnesota announced in October it was returning military-grade weapons that it acquired through a federal program — but it failed to mention a few. 
 
The campus group Students United Against Police Brutality obtained documents that show the University neglected to disclose ownership of three M79 grenade launchers it received through the federal Law Enforcement Support Office established by the Department of Defense, whose 1033 program allows police departments to obtain surplus military weapons for free.
 
Officials have distributed the weapons to the Rochester police department and the U.S. Army’s Rock Island Arsenal Garrison.
 
The student group’s president, Eric Bauer, sent a letter to the Board of Regents late last month expressing his frustration over several other public records request he says have gone unanswered from University officials.
 
In September, when national civil rights advocates criticized the federal program, the University emailed public safety updates to students and faculty and staff members detailing its involvement. The updates listed six M16 and two M14 rifles the school acquired through the Law Enforcement Support Office’s program, but the messages didn’t mention the grenade launchers. 
 
“[The rifles] are the only equipment the [University police department] has requested from the [1033] program,” Vice President for University Services Pam Wheelock said in a September public safety update. “The UMPD has been forthcoming about the weapons they use and their participation in the 1033 Program.”
 
In an October update, the University announced the rifles had been returned.
 
Following the public safety updates, Students United Against Police Brutality requested data about the school’s participation in the program. The documents the group received show the University never publicly acknowledged it possessed grenade launchers or disclosed that they returned them, the group said in a press release late last month.
 
The group is currently waiting for the results of other requests it hopes will help determine why the University didn’t mention the M79s in the public safety updates. Bauer said one of the requests has gone unanswered for seven months.
 
“We thought that the data spoke for itself,” he said. “Our group believes that [only announcing possession of the rifles] is outright dishonest.”
 
The University never disclosed the acquisition of the grenade launchers because it was a concern that no one brought up, said Tim Busse, a University spokesperson.
 
“The discussion at the time was surrounding the rifles,” he said. “Nobody asked, ‘Well do you have grenade launchers as well?’”
 
In May, after concerns about the militarization of police departments across the country were raised following unrest in Ferguson, Mo., a group established by an executive order from President Barack Obama recommended prohibiting police departments from using some surplus military equipment, including grenade launchers.
 
“Over the last several years … community members, [law enforcement agencies], civil rights advocates and elected leaders have voiced concerns about what has been described as the ‘militarization’ of law enforcement due to the types of equipment at times deployed,” a report on the order read.
 
Busse said the grenade launchers were only used for training and were never deployed. He declined to comment further.
 
“The equipment is gone, and frankly, that’s all we have to say about that,” he said.